Supporting Trump’s election lies is becoming a litmus test for Pennsylvania Republicans seeking higher office
Calls for a new election review, and casting aspersions on the 2020 results, are now a key element of GOP primaries nationally and in Pennsylvania.
The six-month anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol prompted somber reflections on one of the darkest moments in recent American history.
But far from creating a moment of regret or reflection, last week’s grim milestone also showed how many Republicans — including in Pennsylvania — have doubled down on the lies and conspiracies that sparked the insurrection. As former President Donald Trump continues promoting the fantasy of a stolen election, key Pennsylvania Republicans have amplified or nodded toward that fiction, using their loyalty to the lie as a selling point in their bids for higher office.
Calls for a new election review, and casting aspersions on the 2020 results, are now a key element of GOP primaries nationally and in Pennsylvania, where the state has critical elections for governor and U.S. Senate next year. It’s also driving Republican pushes for tighter election laws, an effort President Joe Biden hopes to counter Tuesday when he comes to Philadelphia to deliver a speech on voting rights.
Last Wednesday, six months and one day after the Capitol protest he joined turned into a riot, State Sen. Doug Mastriano announced he would try to create a Pennsylvania version of Arizona’s widely criticized partisan election review.
Decrying “damage to our election process,” he said “the only way to restore confidence in our Commonwealth’s election process is to undertake a forensic investigation.” Mastriano has spread lies about the election at every turn — helping fuel the doubts that now run through much of the GOP.
» READ MORE: A key Pa. Republican asks counties to hand over ballots and election equipment for an Arizona-style review
Far from sinking him politically, the Franklin County Republican hopes it will get him a promotion: He’s considered a top GOP contender for governor, and is openly angling for Trump’s endorsement.
Also hoping for Trump’s support, Lou Barletta, another Republican gubernatorial hopeful who has refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory, pointed to his own past calls for an investigation and his campaign’s “election integrity commission.”
And as former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain prepares to enter the gubernatorial race, he privately wrote to Trump handing the former president more ammunition for his fraud claims — and seeking his endorsement.
In the June letter, seven months after the election, McSwain called the way the 2020 election was run “a partisan disgrace” and said he received “various” allegations of wrongdoing, but was ordered by then-Attorney General Bill Barr not to make any public statements about them. He wrote that he was told to pass on allegations to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat. McSwain then asked for Trump’s support and concluded, “I hope to see you soon.”
Trump blasted out the letter Monday night to bolster his stolen election claims.
McSwain has dodged previous questions about accepting the 2020 results.
With Trump still reigning as the party’s most powerful figure, his election grievances have become a litmus test for Republican candidates. Even those who haven’t questioned the results have felt compelled to support new reviews, despite numerous audits and oversight by bipartisan elections officials, judges, and Trump’s own Justice Department that affirmed the election results.
It’s a familiar pattern: Republicans are pulled along by Trump’s lies, forced to at least humor them until they take hold and become party orthodoxy.
» READ MORE: What I saw inside the House chamber as the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol closed in
After Trump’s initial claims of massive election fraud fell apart, Republicans have since laundered the idea through complaints about election procedures and now calls for a partisan audit, all of which nod at the original lie: that Trump was robbed. Conspiracy theories thrive on claims that stack on top of each other, said Dustin Carnahan, a Michigan State professor who focuses on misinformation and politics.
“Even when you remove any one element of that narrative, the conspiracy still holds together,” Carnahan said. “It’s all just reinforcing this idea that something illegitimate and something inappropriate may have happened in 2020.”
Pennsylvania already conducted an audit of a sample of ballots in 63 of its 67 counties, which affirmed the accuracy of the outcome. Counties are also required by law to audit a small sample of ballots.
Still, while few have gone as far as Mastriano or Barletta, several of the most prominent Pennsylvania Republicans running in 2022 have embraced calls for additional reviews of last year’s presidential vote.
“We need a full forensic audit in all the states where we had issues, and Pennsylvania certainly had issues,” Republican Senate candidate Jeff Bartos recently said in a May interview with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
Another Senate candidate, Sean Parnell, also told Bannon he supports an audit of the 2020 results, as well as in other elections.
When asked by The Inquirer, both offered a rationale tied to business practices.
“I come from the private sector — we audit things all the time, every day,” Bartos said in a statement. “Only politicians looking to hide something would object to more integrity and more transparency in elections.”
“The government can audit American citizens at any time,” Parnell, who last year led a failed lawsuit seeking to throw out all of Pennsylvania’s 2.6 million mail ballots, said in a statement. “… Why shouldn’t the government be subject to the same standard?”
Of course, businesses’ audits are usually conducted by neutral professionals without a stake in the outcome. Exxon doesn’t open its books for a review by Greenpeace.
» READ MORE: What Sean Parnell, Liz Cheney, and Rudy Giuliani show about Trump’s hold on Pennsylvania Republicans
Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark and now a Senate candidate, pointed to Mastriano’s visit to observe Arizona’s election review when she told conservative radio host Chris Stigall last week that “I believe that they want our election to have integrity and be honest and fair.”
Breaking with many in his party, one potential GOP gubernatorial candidate, State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie), acknowledged that Biden won Pennsylvania and doubted a new investigation would find “anything of significance.”
“If we proceed with the audit, it will continue to perpetuate the story that there was something wrong with the 2020 election results, and I don’t think that’s in the best interests of Pennsylvania,” Laughlin said in an interview.
The Arizona review has been rife with shoddy protocols and handling of ballots, partisan actors, and bizarre tactics — including examinations of ballots for bamboo, on the cooked-up suspicion some came from Asia. Neutral observers have struggled for access. Maricopa County, the home of Phoenix and the target of the review, is likely to spend millions replacing its voting machines because of security concerns.
» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans have a path to victory in 2022. Pro-Trump candidates may not follow it.
But Democrats and Republicans are both glad to keep the GOP denialism — and Trump — front-and-center.
A Reuters-Ipsos poll in May suggests why: 56% of Republicans believe the election was rigged, but only 25% of voters overall do. The state Democratic Party and national groups have blasted out a stream of messages tying Republican candidates to election conspiracies.
“This is a disgrace to democracy — not to mention a profound waste of time and taxpayer money,” Gov. Tom Wolf tweeted about Mastriano’s effort.
On July 6, inboxes were filled with Democratic fund-raising pitches tied to the riot anniversary.
“Every minute Republicans spend competing for Trump’s approval is a minute wasted for Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro, a Democrat expected to run for governor, said on Twitter.
The latest election review to come up empty was in Michigan, where a Republican-led legislative panel concluded there was “no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud.” But far from easing doubts, the result last month only brought more attacks from Trump.
Laughlin, the state senator from Erie County, suspected the same outcome would follow in Pennsylvania.
“In talking to some of my constituents that are for this,” he said, “I don’t believe that they are going to believe the results of the audit unless it finds what they are hoping for.”